AMATEUR ASTRONOMER JIM WHITE, FROM TROUT LAKE GIVES A MONTHLY GUIDELINE ON VIEWING OUR SKY...
What’s in the Sky, December 2020
Here we are already at December, the year’s last month. In addition to the winter solstice and the Geminid meteor shower, this December will feature a rare conjunction between the solar system’s 2 giants, Jupiter and Saturn. So, let’s hope for at least a few clear nights to enjoy the night sky!
The big event this December is the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, on the 21st of the month. On that night, the two gas giant planets will be about 1/10 of a degree apart, close enough for both to be seen in a telescope’s eyepiece. As a comparison, the Moon is about ½ degree wide as we see it from Earth. At the start of December, Saturn will be about 2 degrees to the left of Jupiter. During the month, you will be able to see Saturn grow closer to Jupiter each night, and pass the Jovian giant after the 21st. Both planets will be very low in the southwest, only about 15 degrees above the horizon at sunset, and will set by about 6:45pm on the 21st. So, if skies are clear, look for a location with a good view of the southwestern sky, and look soon after sunset, which occurs at about 4:30pm.
As we all know, skies are usually cloudy in December, not to mention the cold! And with COVID closures, you can’t even visit the Goldendale Observatory. But you can listen to Observatory Manager Troy Carpenter give some excellent presentations on the internet. Go to the Observatory web page and click on “Live Events” for information about live-streamed talks conducted by Troy. On December 6, he’ll be discussing “The 3D Universe”, about the structure of constellations and other shapes we see in the sky.
At the start of December, we’ll be just past the partially-eclipsed full Moon of Nov. 30. December’s full Moon will occur on the 30th. New Moon will be on December 14. On the first of the month, the Moon will be located between the horns of Taurus the bull. On the third, find the Moon just below the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini. On the 6th, the Moon will lie just above the bright star Regulus in Leo in the early morning sky. On the 10th, a very thin waning crescent Moon will lie just above the bright star Spica in the southeastern morning sky. Returning to the evening sky later in the month, the Moon will travel through the constellations Aquarius, Cetus, and Pisces in the southeastern sky. On the 23rd, you’ll find the Moon just below the planet Mars. On Christmas night, the waxing gibbous Moon will be just to the right of the Pleiades star cluster, and the bright star Aldebaran.
Mars, the star of the sky in October, is now growing noticeably fainter as it moves away from Earth. By the end of December, it will be about 83 million miles from Earth, over twice the distance from its October approach of about 39 million miles. It will still outshine nearby stars though, and its reddish color makes it distinctive. Look for Mars in the southwestern sky after dark, in the constellation Pisces.
Our binocular object for December is the Hyades open star cluster, in the constellation Taurus. The Hyades cluster consists of about 150 stars of similar age and origin. To find the Hyades, look in the eastern sky for the familiar constellation Orion, or the open star cluster Pleiades. Above Orion and below the Pleiades, find the bright star Aldebaran in Taurus. Aldebaran is bright and reddish in color. You may notice a “v” shape made up by the stars around Aldebaran – those are the bright stars of the Hyades cluster. Fix your binoculars on them for a very nice sight! Aldebaran is not a part of the cluster, it is much closer to us, and just happens to be on the same line of sight.
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What’s in the Sky
As November arrives, remember to “fall back” and set clocks back 1 hour on the first of the month as we return to standard time. Daylight savings time officially ends at 2am on November 1.
Both Oregon and Washington have approved measures to eliminate the change, and make daylight savings time permanent. Some 32 states in all have voted to do so. But Congress has the final say, and we won’t eliminate the annual switch until a national measure is passed. Interestingly, the European Union has also planned eliminating the switch, except they plan to use “winter time” as the standard, the same thing we now call “standard time”. And even if we switch, individual states can still choose to stay with standard time. Currently, Arizona and Hawaii do not use daylight savings time, as do several US territories.
October graced us with two full Moons, including one on Halloween. November can’t match that, but it does have a lunar eclipse on the 29th and 30th of the month. The bad news is that the eclipse will be partial, and barely noticeable. A portion of the Moon will darken a bit, starting at about 11:30pm. The maximum will be at about 1:45am on the 30th and it will end at about 4 am.
November is the month of a the Leonid meteor shower, peaking on the 17th and 18th. At that time, the Earth passes through the orbital path of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, and some of the debris from the comet drops through Earth’s atmosphere, burning up as it does and producing the meteors we see. There will not be a bright Moon on those nights, so dark skies should help to see fainter meteors.
November starts with a Moon that is just past full. New Moon comes on the 14th, with full Moon on the 29th and 30th, the date of the partial eclipse. On the 2nd of the month, the Moon will lie just above the planet Mars. On the 9th, the waning crescent Moon will lie next to the bright star Regulus, in the morning sky. On the 29th, the full Moon will lie just above the bright star Aldebaran, and below the Pleiades star cluster.
The solar system’s giants, Jupiter and Saturn, have been visible in the evening sky all year, but are now growing quite low in the southwest, setting during evening hours. At the start of November, both will set by about 9:30pm. By the end of the month, both will set by about 8pm. Mars is still nicely visible, but is moving farther away from Earth and will not be quite as bright as in October. Its red color will make it easy to pick out, high in the southern evening sky.
Bright Venus will remain a morning object in November, located low in the southeast before sunrise. Little Mercury will be located very low in the southeast in mid-November, below Venus.
Winter constellations are beginning to show up in the eastern sky in November. Taurus, the Bull, and Auriga, the charioteer, are above the horizon at the beginning of the month by 8pm. By the end of November, Gemini and Orion enter the scene. In the southern sky, Pegasus rides high, identified by its “square” of 4 almost equally bright stars. The “summer triangle” of stars Deneb, Altair, and Vega are low in the western sky. In the north, Ursa major and the Big Dipper ride low near the northern horizon.
The constellation Auriga holds binocular objects to check out in November, a trio of bright star clusters. Auriga may not look much like a chariot, but it does contain a roughly 5-sided pattern of bright stars.
The brightest of the group is Capella, the sixth-brightest star in the night sky. Capella is sometimes referred to as the “Goat star” and a nearby little triangle of stars as “the kids”. Look for Capella and the kids low in the eastern November evening sky. The “kids” will be just to the right of bright Capella. They will both be on the upper part of the 5-sided pattern of stars. Scan with your binoculars to the right and below Capella, at about the 5 o’clock position, about 10 degrees from the bright star. That’s about the width of your fist held at arm’s length. Look for a “fuzzy star”. If you have a small telescope, you should be able to make out individual stars in the cluster. You have found the cluster M38. Look just below M38, and you may be able to spot a very similar cluster, M36. Below that, just outside of the 5-sided pattern, is yet another cluster, M36. Use the picture with this article, and see if you can find them!
Enjoy November’s skies!
What’s in the Sky
Here we are already in October, the first full month of fall. Days are really getting shorter now. Do you sometimes think they are getting shorter at a faster rate? If you have, or have heard others saying something like “boy, it is really getting dark early!” you are not imagining things. The length of day changes the greatest around the equinoxes (first days of fall and spring) and the least at the solstices (start of winter and summer). According to my computer program, day length in October decreases by about an average of 3 minutes a day. In December, by contrast, we only lose about 1/3 of a minute a day. Don’t despair if you miss the Sun, the opposite happens in Spring, when the length of day increases at a more rapid rate.
If you like the full Moon, you have two of them in October. The Moon will be full at the start of the month on Oct. 1, the “Harvest Moon”, and also on Halloween, the “Hunters Moon”. With good weather, we’ll have some nice moonlight to guide the way for young trick-or-treaters. New Moon will occur on October 16.
Jupiter and Saturn will still be nicely visible in the evening sky, but the real story of October will be Mars. The red planet makes its closest approach to Earth about every 2 years, and that will happen this month, on the 13th. Mars will be about 35.8 million miles from Earth at that time. It will be unmistakable in the southern sky, with its distinct reddish color, and its brightness – it will outshine stars in the southern sky, and will be brighter than Jupiter and Saturn. Get a look in mid-October if you can, since Mars will move away from us quite quickly. By the end of October, it will be over 43 million miles from us, 60 million miles distant by December 1, and about 84 million miles away by the first of the year. Look for Mars in the southeastern evening sky. One good time will be October 2, Mars will be right above the waning gibbous Moon. Don’t miss Mars in October!
With Sunrise coming later in the morning, many folks arise when skies are still dark. Take a peek at the eastern sky with your morning cup of coffee, and enjoy dazzling Venus, low in the morning sky. On the mornings of October 2 and 3, Venus makes a close approach with the bright star Regulus in the constellation Leo. Venus has enjoyed some recognition lately, with the discovery of the chemical phosphine in its atmosphere. Phosphine here on Earth is known to be made by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments, and is made industrially. The possible link with microbial life makes the Venus discovery of great interest. There may be a yet-to-be discovered way it is formed chemically. Safe to say that we will see future exploration of Venus’ atmosphere!
If you have binoculars, try locating the “Double-Cluster” in the constellation Perseus, in October’s northeastern sky. Two neighboring clusters of stars, about 7,400 light-years distant, make for a very nice sight. They are faintly visible with the naked eye. Look in the northeast, and find the “W” shaped constellation Cassiopeia. Directly below Cassiopeia is the constellation Perseus. The clusters are about 15 degrees below Cassiopeia, or a bit larger than the width of your fist with your arm outstretched. Use the picture with this column to help locate it!
Many readers are familiar with the Goldendale Observatory State Park, and may be wondering what is up with the facility with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID’s timing could not have been worse; the upgraded facility had just re-opened last winter when the pandemic hit us, and the Observatory is still closed. You can, however, enjoy presentations from Observatory Director Troy Carpenter online, via Facebook. Troy has put together three presentations to date, one discussing Venus and its phases, one focusing on comet Neowise, and a more recent one, “virtual astronomy”. To view the videos, go the Goldendale Observatory web page (http://www.goldendaleobservatory.com/), click on “Special Events”, and then on “Facebook: WA State Parks”. That will take you to the Washington State Parks Facebook page (you need to be logged in to Facebook). On that page, click on “videos”, and scroll down to find the Observatory videos. You’ll be treated to some excellent information and great astrophotography. A perfect activity for a cloudy evening!